Breast Cancer 101: Mammograms

What you need to know about this breast cancer screening tool.

Posted: 10/05/2012 11:15 AM EDT

(Photo: Science Photo Library/ GettyImages)

Each year, more than 1,700 Black women succumb to breast cancer — that’s almost two times higher than white women. Other facts to keep in mind: we are more likely to be diagnosed with more aggressive forms of cancer, which do not respond as well to treatment.

Now, not all forms of aggressive breast cancer are a result of waiting too long to get tested, but we are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age with breast cancer and at a later stage. And we are less likely to get screened for the disease. And while even health experts admit that the mammogram isn’t perfect, it’s the best tool we have to detect breast cancer.

Here are some things to know about these potentially live saving screening tool:

What is it?

A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast.

What do mammograms do and look for?

Mammograms help doctors check for breast cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms of the disease, which is called a screening mammogram. But they can also be used to look for lumps after — that is called a diagnostic mammogram. Yet, the diagnostic mammogram may take longer to really investigate the existing lump and the surrounding breast tissue.

The pros of getting screened

According to the National Cancer Institute, early detection can translate into starting treatment earlier, possibly before it’s spread. And past data has shown that early detection can help reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer among women ages 40 to 70, especially women 50 and older.

The cons of getting screened

In addition to radiation exposure and false positive results (more common with younger women), some forms of cancer are so aggressive that early detection doesn’t make a difference because the cancer has already spread. It’s also important to keep in mind that early detection doesn’t guarantee that someone will not die — cancers respond differently in different people. And mammograms also miss about 20 percent of cancers that are in the breasts because the tissue is so thick.

When should we get tested?

Basic recommendations state that every 1-2 years women 40 and older should have mammograms. But women who are at a higher risk due to a family history or who are carriers for the mutated gene, BRCA1 or the BRCA2 gene, should have a conversation with their doctors about the possibility of getting tested earlier.

Where can women without insurance or low-income women go to get mammograms?

The good news is that there are programs on the state and local level that help lessen the screening gap for women living at or below the poverty line. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) co-ordinate the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Also, over the past year, Planned Parenthood’s Breast Health Initiative has received a surplus of funding to help women get screened.

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